Handling is the way a mother manages the moment to moment physical care of her infant such that the baby gets to know his own body. It necessarily involves the mother and infant going on in a psychosomatic partnership; as if they formed one unit (Winnicott, 1962).
Donald Woods Winnicott presented his ideas of infant care and its relation to psychological development to the lay public in a series of radio broadcasts and child care journals (Winnicott, 1947). He gave detailed descriptions of what happens between the mutually adapted mother and infant, for example with breastfeeding or when a mother picks up her baby. In this paper Winnicott made his famous statement, "there is no such thing as a baby. . . . A baby cannot exist alone, but is essentially part of a relationship" (p. 88). The description of the mother's handling of her baby grew out of Winnicott's detailed observations of mother-infant interactions in his work as a pediatrician and later his psychoanalytic work with both child and adult patients. Mutually attuned and sensitive physical care of the baby gives the baby a sense of his own body: "an indwelling of the psyche in the soma" (1970). The mother approaches her baby and picks him up as if there is a person within the body she approaches. This concept is adapted to the quality of care enacted in psychoanalytic treatment. The mother adapts herself to what the baby can understand, and to what the baby needs. Thus, Winnicott insisted that the mothering of one's own baby is a personal job, that no one else could do as well. The mother's handling of her own baby is so sensitive as to be unique.
The baby has no experience of being a baby, so it is dependent upon the mother's capacity to adapt to his needs in order to develop the experience of mutuality. The "good-enough mother" manages the baby's body and its needs in such a way that he comes to know his body—that there is an inside and an outside, a body schema integrated with his personal psychic reality, that is: "personalization."
See also: Breastfeeding; Good-enough mother; Holding; Integration; Maternal; Maternal care; Neutrality/benevolent neutrality; Object.
Winnicott, Donald. (1964) Further thoughts on babies as persons. In his The child, the family, and the outside world (pp. 85-92). Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books. (Original work published 1947)
——. (1965) Ego integration in child development. In his The maturational processes and the facilitating environment (pp. 56-63). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1962)
——. (1970) The mother-infant experience of mutuality. In E. Anthony and T. Bender (Eds.), Parenthood: Its Psychology and Psychopathology. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.
——. (1989) On the basis for self in body. In C. Winnicott, R. Shepherd, and M. Davis (Eds.), Psychoanalytic explorations. London: Karnac. (Original work published 1971)